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Cool Your Air with Solar Power

7/26/2013 4:29:37 PM | by Fonthip Maspithak

Home Solar Power System

The general market is saturated with solar-powered devices for the everyday consumer: calculators, cell phone chargers, outdoor lights, and even hangers that automatically rotate your hanging baskets for even sunlight exposure. Bearing this in mind, marketing and implementing solar-powered air conditioning should be very easy; the same photovoltaic panels used in these consumer devices can be scaled appropriately to power the needs of a zonal or central air conditioning system. This environmentally friendly solution reduces power draw and the overall demand on power production facilities and, theoretically, proves to be a financial incentive to the consumer. If this method of powering air conditioning is so profitable, why is it not more prevalent?


Cost and Space Prohibitive Nature of Photovoltaics

If sun wasn't a variable in the overall equation, using solar panels is physically a very feasible means of powering an air conditioning system. The issue is that the power consumption of an air conditioner requires more solar panels that what would be a spatially and financially viable option for most people. Think of charging a cell phone; typically, this requires a total power consumption of 2 watts. An average photovoltaic panel outputs 13 watts per square foot. A single central air conditioner may pull 3500 watts/hour, which would theoretically require nearly 270 square feet of space for panels. This doesn't take into consideration multiple factors, such as losses due to efficiency and shade.


Supplemental Power

The effectiveness of photovoltaics is largely dependent on steady exposure to unobscured sunlight. Some locations, such as the American Southwest, are very conducive to this type of power, whereas the sun's more glancing rays in the midst of Northern New England's forests would hamper a solar panel's usefulness. Fortunately, the Southwest requires air conditioning to a much greater degree than Northern New England, so this inequality of effectiveness is relatively balanced by climate. In both cases, however, electrical energy harnessed from solar panels can be used as supplemental power for an air conditioning system. Though return-on-investments vary widely on a case-by-case basis, the everyday consumer could very well strike a balance so that cost savings by using a partially solar-powered air conditioner aren't outweighed by the initial investment; all while reducing the consumption of precious resources for power generation.


Home Efficiency

If you do choose one of the above routes for implementing a solar powered air conditioning system in your home, you can considerably lessen its electrical demand by reducing the need for cooling. This can be done in a number of ways:

Proper ventilation
Proper insulation
Eliminating cracks
Adequate circulation


It's very common that attics can be over-insulated and under-vented, causing heat to become trapped inside, thereby preventing unwanted heat from exiting the home (this is also the cause for excessive condensation on walls and windows in the wintertime). By properly venting and insulating your attic and outside walls, heat can escape and cool air can penetrate your rooms.


Eliminating cracks, most commonly near windows and doors, prevents the unwanted escape of cool air. Proper filling of gaps and caulking will typically suffice.


Adequate circulation is frequently overlooked. Most people see return air vents and regard them as secondary to delivery vents, since they don't actively cool rooms. The fact is, however, these are just as important as air delivery vents; if air can't circulate, pressure builds in the room, reducing the effectiveness and increasing the demand on a cooling system. The lesser load placed on this system reduces the overall draw on solar panels, which increases their practicality.


Compliment Your Air Conditioning System

If using photovoltaic panels simply isn't feasible for powering your air conditioning system, you can certainly use them to assist your cooling needs. For instance, solar-powered attic vents remove the excessive upper-level heat build-up that increases the load on your air conditioner. As an alternative to this, solar power could be harnessed for a heat pump, which is an especially effective method for providing cooling in a mild climate.

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